Category Archives: Change and Transformation

Words&Music 2: What a difference a half-year makes

Dear Reader,

This is the second installment of my personal newsletter, Words&Music. To receive this in your inbox, sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9

Dear Reader,

Global poverty. Climate change. Political uncertainty. Swedish development aid. Financial markets. The United Nations and the World Bank. The challenge of learning to lead a complex department, in a complex public agency, in complex times.

These are a few of the things that have been on my mind the past six months. Certainly I intended to write to you more often. I also believed, perhaps naively, that I would continue working on my current book, digitally scribbling away at poetry, prepping for an eventual return to the recording studio.

Instead, I have been completely engrossed in my job.

And this has been very rewarding: I am lucky to be leading a department full of smart, committed, and friendly people, as well as sitting on an overall management team that can be similarly described. I’ve also had the honor of representing Sida at the annual meetings of the World Bank and UN General Assembly. I’ve had literally hundreds of meetings during this time, received thousands of emails, signed dozens of decision documents.

There has been a lot to learn, and there remains a lot to be learned. It’s never-ending, of course. But finally, this weekend, I found myself thinking of you — the people who signed up for my newsletter, up to half a year ago.

So much has happened during that half-year. The most profound change, from my personal point of view, has been the change in my own perspective. Immersion in the governmental and inter-governmental machinery of sustainable development, including the interfaces between governments and companies and non-profits and academic institutions, is quite different from advising those entities as an external consultant (which was my principal profession over the past 25 years).

For one thing, as a decision-maker, I now depend on the advice and the work of others. It quickly becomes impossible to set oneself into the details of every issue (as a consultant I always dug into the details). I must trust my colleagues. They present the results of their analyses, describe the logic they have used to arrive at a proposed course of action. If it makes sense to me, I approve it, cheer them on, or carry it forward for discussion at the leadership level. If I am not fully convinced, or if I see areas that I believe can or must be improved in some way, we look together at the relevant details of those aspects that seem problematic, till we arrive at a good conclusion. (And I’m not always right, of course.)

On the other hand, if I have an idea for a course of action, it makes no sense for me to simply “just do it”. There is a vast library of relevant knowledge and experience, a great team, sitting all around me. I don’t have to do anything of scale on my own; in fact, it’s part of my job not to do things on my own, but to mobilize, inspire, support others to do that work (and much other work besides, including everything that we are already tasked with doing, by the Swedish government or by our agency’s Director-General).

And sometimes it turns out that “my idea” has actually been incubated elsewhere, by others, somewhere inside my agency, for some time: then my job becomes one of supporting my colleagues and helping that idea find its way to a bigger life.

I have a new-found appreciation for people like Wallace Stevens, already one of my favorite poets of the 20th Century, who managed to write his poems and essays while also working as a top executive in a large insurance company. If he could do it, I say to myself, eventually so can I.

This is by no means a complaint. I assume you have been reading between the lines of the letter and understanding how much I love this job. I am keenly aware that responsibility is a privilege. So I have been giving that responsibility my all.

But after a half-year, I am finally re-discovering life outside my job. (Not my family life — they have always been at the center of my little corner of the universe.) There are poems to write, songs to sing, a few books I want to continue developing.

And there is you — the much-appreciated people who indicated, by signing up for this newsletter, that you were interested in what I am thinking and writing and/or singing. I hope you are following me on social media (if you like social media — Twitter is my principal channel). You will get a mix there of work-related and personal views on the world.

But I will be back to you soon with news about the other stuff: my longer-term project to write a book on developing the human capacity to imagine our future (in more constructive ways than we do currently), and shorter-term projects to bring nearly-completed work out into the public sphere.

Thanks again for your continued interest … and just for fun, here’s one of my old songs that might be of interest, because it seems (to me) more and more timely with each passing year:  “Trying to be Happy in a Crazy World“. The link is to a free YouTube version. You can also listen to it on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon etc. Lyrics are pasted in below. (Don’t miss the little twist in the lyric on the very last refrain.)

Warm regards from Stockholm,
Alan

Trying to be Happy in a Crazy World

Words and Music © 1991 by Alan AtKisson – from the album “Believing Cassandra“, available on most major streaming services, and free to listen to on YouTube

Open up the paper — turn on the news —
Get a double dose of the daily blues
And the man in the mirror, he’s struggling free
Like he’s swimming up from the bottom of the sea, he’s …

Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Trying to be happy in a crazy world

Sometimes history seems like a practical joke
That ends with a planet going up in smoke
We’re slippin’ and slidin’ — it’s a banana peel dance
Are we just the victims of global circumstance?  Are we …

Trying to be happy in a crazy world …

Well it’s hard to keep your hope when there’s such trouble in the world
The thorns among the roses, the swine who eat the pearls
And it seems so very hard to love just one human being
When it happens, the joy makes the angels sing

Maybe life’s a riddle — or maybe it’s school
Maybe we’re a family of hopeless fools
Maybe we’re just tired of livin’ on a little blue ball
We’re playin’ dangerous games that make no sense at all — Maybe we’re

Trying to be crazy in a happy world
Trying to be crazy in a happy world
Trying to be crazy in a happy world

 

Viridian revisited: An interview with Bruce Sterling

Photo by Pablo Balbontin Arenas (via Wikipedia)

Bruce Sterling made his name in science-fiction, part of the wave of “cyberpunk” writers working in the late 1980s and early ‘90s — other names include William Gibson and Neal Stephenson — whose work seemed more predictive than speculative. I enjoyed his novels (they won a number of awards), but I especially enjoyed being part of a movement he launched in 1998, called Viridian.

Being Viridian, in the way Sterling originally conceptualized it, was like being green, except that “there’s something electrical and unnatural about our tinge of green.” A key aim of the movement was to reinvent products, services, technologies, whole economies, so that they were ultra-environmental — but still resoundingly cool.

“We’re an art movement … an ad campaign, a design team, an oppo[sition] research organization, a laboratory and, perhaps most of all, we resemble a small feudal theocracy ruled with an iron hand by a Pope-Emperor,” wrote Sterling in his launch speech.

The last bit was about himself: Part of the Viridian ethos involved having some high-spirited fun and being less predictably eco-dour. The mix was attractive, and I had the pleasure of serving in the Pope-Emperor’s advisory group, which he called the Curia. (I also ended up running an international Viridian Design Competition, complete with $10,000 in donated prize money, that generated a wide range of prototypes for the world’s first smart electricity meters. But that’s another story.)

The Viridian movement also had an arch-enemy: the Global Climate Coalition, an industry lobbying organization, filled with prominent corporations and business associations, whose sole (and shameful) purpose was to oppose action on carbon emissions reduction. But the GCC went extinct in 2001, “after membership declined in the face of improved understanding of the role of greenhouse gases in climate change,” stated Wikipedia — before tacking on, “and public opposition.”

Viridian persisted until 2008 when, in the throes of the global financial crisis, Sterling decided to shut it down. But he left a great deal of parting Viridian advice, such as “Do not economize. Please. That is not the point.” The point was to reinvent stuff, because “the economy is clearly insane.”

Viridian may be gone, but Sterling is still very much around, still prone to the provocative, most recently in a keynote at the SXSW conference in his former hometown, Austin, Texas (where he urged techies to become more artistic). Sterling no longer lives in Austin because, well, he followed his own advice. He reinvented himself as a futurist (among other things). Married to Serbian author and activist Jasmina Tešanović, he divides his time between cities such as Belgrade and Turin, where he curates an annual tech-art fair.

Personally, I see echoes of Viridian thinking all around me in the global sustainability movement. I can trace a trail of historical impact from Viridian, through various websites and books of the 2000s, to today’s renaissance in sustainable design. But I’m a biased optimist. I was curious about how Bruce saw it. So, I caught up with him by email interview.

Alan AtKisson: Bruce, it’s been nearly 20 years since you launched the Viridian movement. I can personally attest that it was fun and inspiring, and it felt disruptive. What kind of impact do you think it made?

Bruce Sterling: Well, I would cynically say that it had a very modest effect on the culture, but it had a major personal effect on me. I was a science fiction writer when I started it, but 20 years later I’m a lot more at ease with designers, artists, architects, engineers, activists — and not in some speculative, writerly way. I really rub shoulders with them now; we lost the Lusitania, but we’re in the same lifeboat.

AtKisson: So, you’ve been closely observing design and architecture for two decades, in multiple locations around the planet. How would you sum up the direction of change? How much greener or sustainable have they gotten? What’s stopping designers from going full Viridian?

Sterling: I wouldn’t say there was one direction of change in design in 20 years. It’s more like the situation of general change in politics or pop music.

One might imagine all politics would become green politics, and that’s not true at all. Pop music might exclusively be ballads about sustainability, but that won’t happen either.

Most design that’s very self-consciously sustainable and green is packaged for a demographic segment called “lifestyles of health and sustainability.” Its aficionados are all over the place — in Germany, everything that is loudly labelled “bio” is aimed at them. They’re about 7 percent of the U.S. consumer population. They never go away, but they never take over the world, either.

Probably the biggest single change is that, 20 years ago, guys in the fossil-fuel business were uneasy about developments, but they considered themselves normal people who were being maligned. Nowadays, they’re actively evil and they know they are evil, they’re very overt in their depredations. Their global business has been de-normalized, it’s chaotic, criminal and even genocidal in places. They could have designed their way out of that if they’d wanted a soft landing, but they chose to die ugly.

AtKisson: You don’t sound wildly optimistic. What’s your expectation — forecast, not hope — about what’s going to happen in the design world over the next 20 years, relative to sustainability, green, climate-friendly or anything remotely “Viridian”?

Sterling: I appreciate that people like motivational sermons and some pep-talk from a futurist, but I always shy away from “optimism” and “pessimism.” This is 2018, and you’re asking me to talk about 2038. If you asked me to talk historically about what happened in 1998, you would never ask if I was an “optimist” about 20 years ago.

We do best in anticipating events if we understand that 2038 and 1998 are two sister years and that the future is a kind of history that hasn’t happened yet. If we’re optimistic, we’re just putting on rose-tinted goggles so as to ignore half the facts.

Twenty years is a good long time. I’m thinking we’re probably in for some big, black-swan discontinuities that make most design ideas of the present day seem pretty silly. It’s like guys in 1938 trying to outguess 1958, in the style of Norman Bel Geddes.

If I had to sum it up in a bumper sticker, I’d guess that design in 2038 would regard most anything we adore as “digital” as being backward, blinkered, dangerous or corny.

AtKisson: People like me see you as a mover and shaker in the Maker and alternative technology movements, as well as “technology as art” [the subject of Sterling’s talk at the SXSW conference in 2018]. To what degree is Viridian-style thinking — serious engagement with climate and other global sustainability challenges — present in those movements? How does it express itself?

Sterling: You’re flattering me here. I’d say that Viridian was a cultural sensibility that never caught on — it died on the vine something like the cleantech of the same period, which might have made sense but was outflanked by other forces.

The 1990s really were a Belle Epoque, like its sister decade the 1890s, but neither one of them came to fruition. We haven’t had a Great War yet, but we’ve had plenty of war, and now climate disasters have outpaced political response and mass disasters are surprising everybody. We’ll have some cultural sensibilities that respond to this situation, but they’re not going to look or act very Viridian. That opportunity is simply gone with the wind.

[Interlude: Bruce and I briefly debated whether he is actually a “mover and shaker.” He took the last word: “I’d be a mover and shaker if there were fewer glaciers melting and I could put Rex Tillerson in jail.”]

AtKisson: OK, so let’s dial back the timeline to the coming year or so, and shift from prediction to practical advice. Viridian may have “died on the vine” as you put it, but the motivation behind it remains as pressing as ever. We need to aim design — mainstream design, not just the committed-green-lifestyle variety — in ultra-climate-friendly and sustainable directions. Fast. Assume designers are actually going to read this. What are your suggestions to them?

Sterling: If I were a designer I’d worry about becoming a handmaiden to ultra-wealthy offshored oligarchs, tech moguls and sovereign wealth funds, because they’re the guys who have all the money nowadays. Designers are generally “on the side of the user,” but when the user’s broke because there’s no middle class, there’s a real threat that you’re either some kind of courtier to the super-rich or else you can’t get the resources to do anything.

The East Germans of the DDR had some really well-trained and meticulous designers, but boy, did they ever make a heap of ugly rubbish. A bad political environment blights everything.

Personally, I like hanging out with open-source design guys, because there are a lot of them in the academy and in the electronic art scene. But I wouldn’t claim that open source is anybody’s path to utopia; people who are in that scene tend to shrug off the money but then they argue about the prestige. There’s a lot of palace intrigue; it’s like literary politics, almost. But, then again, I’m a novelist.

AtKisson: So, what’s your next book about?

Sterling: It’s a historical fantasy about the glory days of the city of Turin in the remote 1640s. I spend a lot of time in Turin and always wanted to write a regional novel about the city and its strange heritage, so this seems to be my chance.

You can revisit the halcyon days of the Viridian movement through its archived website, ViridianDesign.org. Bruce Sterling’s blog, Beyond the Beyond, is a regular feature on Wired.

This blog post was originally published as one of my “North Star” columns on GreenBiz.com.

The Sustainability Change Agent’s Job Description

This year, 2018, marks a decade since I first published The Sustainability Transformation* — the 2nd book in my planned 3-volume “Optimist Trilogy.” I’m now working on volume 3. But the “job description” from vol. 2 that appears on the first page of the first chapter is still highly relevant. Enjoy … and spread.

JOB DESCRIPTION

World development is making most people richer and healthier. It is creating enormous new opportunities for human learning and self-expression. But it is also creating a dangerous set of conditions and trends – climate change, a stark rich/poor divide, an erosion of community and social capital, depletion of both non-renewable and renewable resources, conflict over resources, degraded ecosystems, disappearing species, and many other problems – that are increasingly likely to cause collapses and catastrophes, small and large. These growing dangers are greatly diminishing the long-term prospects of both people and nature. Our current course is not sustainable.

Your job is to help change the world, by changing the systems in which you live and work. Your objective is to prevent collapse or catastrophe – in both human and natural systems – and to increase the prospects for a more sustainable and even beautiful future.

To assist you in accomplishing your assignment, you will be given access to current research about the trends shaping that future, as well as up-to-date news about important breakthroughs, tools, technologies and change processes. You will be linked up to other individuals and groups who have accepted the same job and who are spread out across the planet. This global ‘conspiracy of hope’, combined with the latest in communications technology, will make it possible to work in both physical and virtual teams, and to find help and support, almost anywhere.

Your prospects for success are better than they might appear, because slow changes can suddenly become very rapid, and because humanity has a long history of rising to overcome great challenges. But you face a number of daunting obstacles and limitations:

  • You will be given minimal resources to pursue your mission – indeed, an extremely tiny amount when compared to the resources currently spent to fuel your community, company or government on its current course. You will have to find ways to create large-scale changes with small-scale budgets using high-leverage intervention strategies.
  • You will be largely invisible to others, and it will sometimes be difficult to explain to other people what you are doing. Phrases like ‘sustainable development’, ‘global transformation’ or ‘a systems perspective’ still leave most people scratching their heads. You will have to communicate your intentions in ways that speak to people’s immediate and local needs while also convincing them to participate in longer-term, larger-scale changes to solve increasingly global problems. There is not enough time to wait for people to ‘wake up’ or ‘get it’ on a mass scale.
  • You will have limited access to centres of power. If you achieve access, you will often discover that many people sitting in those centres of power feel surprisingly trapped by the system that they are supposedly controlling, and relatively powerless to make change. If you are not able to convince them otherwise, you will have to find other ‘leverage points’, other places to start change processes that can then spread through the system.
  • Meanwhile, the momentum of change in the wrong direction will be immeasurably huge, and will probably continue to accelerate, in ways that seem unstoppable. It is imperative that you resist tendencies to despair and cynicism, in yourself and others, and that you find effective ways to spread a sense of hope and inspiration. For without hope – the belief that change is possible, that your vision of a sustainable world is attainable – your chances of success fall dramatically.

Good luck.

 

* The original title of The Sustainability Transformation was “The ISIS Agreement” (2008) — referring both to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to our planning methodology, which is introduced in the book (Indicators, Systems, Innovation, Strategy). The hardback version from 2008 is still available under the old name. We had to change the name of both the methodology and the book, for obvious reasons. The methodology is now called VISIS (we added “Vision”, because it was always part of the methodology anyway).

How Oslo launched a new design revolution

Once in a while, a conference actually changes the world.

In this case, I refer to a series of conferences in Oslo, sponsored by Norway’s National Center for Design and Architecture (known as DOGA). In 2015, a couple of sustainability visionaries there, Jannicke Hølen and Knut Bang, had the brilliant idea to focus on the “Outdoor” business sector — makers of skis, boots, tents, gear and all the outdoorsy tops, jackets, pants and socks that people tend to wear when they head off to the mountains and fjords. Or the local mall, for that matter.

Then DOGA invited a who’s who of people working in design and sustainability to come talk to the assembled designers, suppliers, marketers and students. People such as Vincent Stanley, Patagonia’s in-house “philosopher,” and Paul Dillinger, head of design at Levi Strauss, helped kick it off. The event took place in a re-purposed church, with great veggie food, edgy multi-media and the ultimate in mood lighting. A surprising number of CEOs turned up — even when they were not invited speakers. Over two years and three annual events, these “Framtanker” (“Forward Thinking”) conferences became a real happening.

Because Framtanker made real things happen.

Jens Petter Ring at Framtanker 2017 (photo courtesy DOGA)

Example: At the first conference, Jens Petter Ring, a young outdoor professional, listened to presentations on global challenges, the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the special responsibility of designers, and realized: “I have to do something.”

So, he decided to start a new company, dedicated to making the most sustainable outdoor clothing possible. And at the third Framtanker conference Nov. 28, he presented the story of “Greater than A,” or just “>A,” created in partnership with Norwegian skiing legend Aksel Svindal and others. Their first products, which push materials choice to new sustainability and performance limits, while aiming for “timeless” fad-resistant design, aren’t even hitting the stores until January, but are already a big hit with the buyers.

That’s just one story. Hundreds of people, companies, even whole design institutions have been affected by the “Framtanker” conferences — not least because of one its major spin-off “products,” the Oslo Manifesto. This design call-to-action, based on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, has attracted several hundred signatories, including architecture and design schools, and spawned a website full of inspirational projects and resources to help designers turn the SDGs into reality.

Alan AtKisson speaking at “Framtanker” in Nov 2017, Oslo, Norway, photo courtesy DOGA/Sverre C. Jarild

Obviously, I’m biased here: I had the privilege of keynoting the first Framtanker conference in 2015, and closing the most recent one. Hølen and Bang, together with a co-conspirator of theirs from the design world named Kjersti Kviseth, have gone from being clients to initiative partners to friends. We cooked up the Oslo Manifesto together (on my side, it’s been a volunteer project) — but the idea emerged from a live panel discussion at the first Framtanker in 2015.

Sitting in the moderator’s chair at the end of the conference, I asked Victor Stanley, Paul Dillinger, Kviseth and other panelists whether the SDGs could be turned into a “design brief.” (See photo, top.)

Screenshot from the OsloManifesto.org website

Absolutely, they said. So, we did that — and we launched the resulting Manifesto and website at the next Framtanker, in 2016. Since then, we’ve presented the Oslo Manifesto to graphic designers, maritime industry representatives, design management executives and many others.

Mingling around at the most recent Framtanker, I chatted with over a dozen professionals and executives who noted, with sincerity, that these conferences in Oslo had been an important source of inspiration and ideas for them, while serving as a serious wake-up call about the scale of the global sustainability challenge — and the essential role that design must play in accelerating solutions. Some people had changed jobs. Others had just pushed harder to make change in their current jobs.

Many repeat attendees were jolted again by this year’s opening speaker, legendary eco-entrepreneur Gunter Pauli, who reminded them that “polluting less is still polluting” and that the ultimate goal is not just zero impact, but restorative impact. “I’m going to have a long think about that,” said one outdoor design leader, whose products already are hailed as green. “Gunter made me realize that we still haven’t gone far enough.”

Of course, engaging designers in sustainability is hardly a new idea. Many of sustainability’s early and highly visible pioneers were green designers and architects. Green buildings are the norm now. And yet, the process of engaging the broader mainstream of professionals in areas such as clothing, industrial and product design has been a strangely sluggish process — even in the outdoor sector, which one would expect to be full of super-green nature-lovers.

But having worked with numerous relevant firms, I can report that designers and design departments are often declared off-limits to the sustainability folks. Don’t talk to them, is the message we often hear (sometimes quite directly). Designers shouldn’t be distracted by the troublesome demands of sustainability. They should just focus on what the market wants, and on creating good design.

Fortunately, that’s fast becoming a very old-fashioned approach. Good design is, increasingly, sustainable design. The number of companies embracing Net Positive and FutureFit and other new, highly ambitious, regenerative sustainability frameworks is growing fast. Most of us sustainability nerds have been declaring that “the revolution is here” for over a decade.

And yet, the companies in the spotlight are still, in many ways, the usual suspects representing a very small percentage of world production. Even the circular economy movement often ends up focused more on repurposing waste than on redesigning the products that create waste in the first place.

Which means the sustainable design movement — in which GreenBiz also plays a key role, by the way, with its own conference programs — is nowhere near finished. In fact, it’s still coming out of starting blocks.

Think I’m pessimistic in my assessment? Just walk into any big store, selling any kind of product. Look around. How much of what you see has been designed for true sustainability? The astonishing amounts of just one highly unsustainable material type — plastic — will keep a generation of designers busy redoing their products.

But thanks to efforts such as Framtanker, I’m optimistic. Many of Scandinavia’s outdoor companies are more ambitiously on the move. And the good folks at DOGA are moving on to some new sector.

Their strategy works: Three years of excellent conferences, focused on one sector, helps to get sustainability much more firmly embedded in design thinking, in one concentrated place.

And then the impacts ripple outward.

Originally published on GreenBiz.com as Alan AtKisson’s “North Star” column, 19 Dec 2017

Launching “Swedified” – a new blog

swedified-opensFor years, I have wanted to write about what it is like to come to this small, unusual country — Sweden — and then become part of it.

There is a Swedish word used to describe foreign people (or things) that have been absorbed by the unique culture of Sweden, but have been given a kind of Swedish twist in the process: försvenskad. Or in English: swedified.

Which is the name of the new blog I launched recently. To get a sense of what it’s about, read the Welcome letter. And to read the first full article on the site — commemorating the remarkable life of my friend Vincent Williams, an American-Swedish artist who passed away in 2016 — click here.

About Those Parachuting Cats

ParachutingCats-IconOn September 1, my latest book — written together with my dear friend and business partner Axel Klimek — hits the shelves, both physically and digitally.

Parachuting Cats into Borneo distills our many years of working together into very readable little book on how to make change happen, and also how to avoid the common pitfalls that prevent change from happening.

“But what about those cats?” you may immediately be wondering. “Did they really parachute cats into Borneo? And why is that the title of the book?”

The short answer to the first question is yes. I won’t give away the story here, because I want you to buy the book. You can even follow the footnotes to the academic sources and the evidence about what actually happened. (But you may already know this story from many other sources, including the song I wrote about this historical event from the 1950s.)

And why this title? Two reasons: (1) To draw attention to the book, and (2) to reinforce a key point. All too often, when trying to change things for the better, we end up changing them for the worse. And then we have to take even more drastic action to try to fix the new problems we have inadvertently created.

“Parachuting Cats into Borneo” is a true story, but it’s also a metaphor: it’s something we always want to avoid having to do! We have loaded up this book with tools, methods, advice, coaching, and stories to help you increase your chances of success as you try to make your organization, or your corner of the world, a better place.

So that you don’t have to parachute cats into Borneo … or anywhere else!

With over 60 years of experience between us, Axel and I believe that this little book can truly be helpful — to anyone trying to start, lead, manage, or fix a change process. In almost any context.

And that means: helpful to just about everyone.

And hopefully, also, a pleasure to read. (I am glad to report that the early reviews are very positive.)

On September 1st, the cats are coming!

You can pre-order Parachuting Cats into Borneo today at the publisher’s website, at Amazon, or via your favorite book-seller.

An Open Letter to Future Generations

Dear Future Generations,

I’m sure this is obvious to you — you can see things better than we can, in hindsight. But I want to report to you that we are living through a time of dramatic change. Historic change. The kind of moment where everything seems to be balanced on a knife edge, and it could tip either way.

I am writing to you from Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll start with what is happening here, then I’ll paint you a global picture. Because it’s all connected.

Not long ago, this was a quiet little corner of Europe, a place where everything “worked.” There was essentially no poverty. No homeless people. There was a shared belief in something we called “solidarity.”

We don’t use that word much any more. In a few short years, we now have beggars on every street corner. There are people here who have fled from poverty or war, only to wind up living in tents, or sports halls, or outside on the street. Many thousands more war refugees, after traveling thousands of miles, are knocking on our door — so many that our government just decided to close that door. This is a pattern being repeated in many other countries, too. (Though one country, Canada, just decided to open their previously closed door. Good for them.)

Meanwhile, our “Western” part of the world is reeling from a series of small but extremely violent, deadly, and scary attacks — we call it “terrorism” — whose purpose is to strike fear into people’s hearts, ratchet up tensions, and provoke us into global war. The strategy is almost working. Our extreme right wing political groups are gaining strength, countries are rattling swords, and demagogues reminiscent of the 1930s are rising up amongst us. (Unfortunately, these populist rage-baiters have access to technologies far more powerful than the microphones used by Hitler and Mussolini.)

Meanwhile, it’s warm this winter — again. According to global data, this year is the warmest our modern, industrial civilization has ever measured. And we (as you well know) are the ones warming things up. That’s not all we’re doing to the planet, either. Huge alarm bells are ringing for Nature, everywhere. Some of us are trying to wrestle down our overall “footprint” on this Earth. But so far, humanity’s “foot” keeps pressing down harder and heavier, pinning us to the mat.

We’re also struggling to leave a bit of wildness for you to enjoy, but it’s extremely hard work. All it takes is a small number of uncaring or greedy or needy or ignorant people to destroy wild Nature — by setting fire to Sumatra, say, or poaching African elephants. I’d like to be able to say about these people, “They know not what they do.” But in fact, they know exactly what they are doing. And there are global markets ready to absorb the “profits” of their illegal activities. They are extremely clever about getting past our increasingly desperate defenses, too. It’s starting to seem obvious why the mammoth, the dodo, and the passenger pigeon are no longer with us: it only takes one of us to kill the last of anything.

That sounds like a pretty bleak picture, and it is. A dismal thought crosses my mind at least once a day: we could all too easily tumble into an abyss of war, political dystopia, and ecological catastrophe.

But that’s the bad news, one side of the knife edge. The other side — the good news — is, well, surprisingly good.

Despite dangerous and viral pockets of poverty and war, our human population is overall getting less poor, and less violent. We have made amazing strides in providing people with education, better access to food and energy and health care, a sense of hope for their children’s future. We have far to go — hundreds of millions are still living in misery — but many trends are moving rapidly in the right direction. We just need to figure out how to keep those positive trends going, while not destroying the planet’s ecosystems, and before social instabilities make the challenge insurmountable.

But there is good news on the action side, too. This year, the world’s governments completed an unprecedented series of global agreements. Right now, they’re finalizing a new deal on climate change that looks like it will be better than most of us hoped for — even if we know it is still not enough and will have to be improved later. We also have, for the first time, a truly global vision and a set of global goals for where all of humanity should be heading. You probably take the idea of “SDGs” (Sustainable Development Goals) for granted by now. For us, they were an unprecedented historic breakthrough.

We are even starting to understand the fundamental principle that “everything is connected to everything else” — and we are starting to build that principle into our government policies, corporate strategies, and community development programs. It’s not just talk, either: I am watching serious change happen, with my own eyes, every day.

Given everything happening now in our world — the good, the bad, and the ugly, to borrow an old movie title — I find myself thinking about you more and more.

It seems like this time, this specific time, is really going to be decisive for you. Our descendants.

So I just want you to know: things are really, really shaky just now. We’ve had global war before, kicked off by similarly unstable conditions. So we know, unfortunately, that it’s all too possible to fall into that huge and deadly trap.

We also know what it’s like to fudge and hedge and not do what is necessary to secure the health of Nature, and the wellbeing of People — because we are seeing the consequences of insufficient action, on the global scale, right now. We are finally waking up to the fact that these two things, human happiness and ecological integrity, must go together. When they don’t … well, among other things, we get the conditions we are struggling with in Sweden, and many other places, right now.

Basically, we know what failure looks like. And we can see all too clearly that failure, when it comes to managing our presence on planet Earth sustainably, is still a possibility.

But we also know — because we are starting to experience a little of it — what success feels like. Setting clear goals. Working together to achieve them. Maintaining an optimistic vision and intense effort, no matter what. Tackling problems head-on, intelligently, compassionately. Working on making systems better, not just symptoms.

I just want you to know, dear Future Generations, that many of us are working very, very hard to try to make things better. More and more of us, all the time. Working for you, for ourselves, and for all life on this planet. And I believe we are starting to tip that balance in the right direction.

But please — if you can — let me know how it turned out.

Love,
Alan

The World’s Theory of Change

In training courses, workshops, and in books — including a forthcoming new book with my friend and business partner Axel Klimek — I teach people working on sustainability how to clarify and improve their “theory of change”: their mental model of how they are driving change toward sustainability, in their specific context.

At the level of individual change agents, such a theory is already a complex thing. You have to know the characteristics of the system you are working in (the company, community, university, etc.). You have to know the dynamics of what is happening in that system, as well as something about the underlying system structures. You have to have surveyed the possibilities for innovation and change in that system, and last — but far from least — you really need to know its people: who will help you, who will oppose you, who is not likely to care, and who can simply stop the process (or accelerate it) with the snap of a finger.

And of course, it helps to know a little about sustainability, too.

Increasingly, and fortunately, many people do know. I’ve had the good luck in my career to work as a strategic consultant and executive trainer in dozens of wildly different contexts, from global corporations in the OECD countries, to tiny NGOs in Africa and Asia, from ministries in developing countries, to the halls of the UN, and a lot more. It’s a little dizzying when I think back on it. But it also gives me a great source of hope, because I know — first hand, from direct observation and experience — that knowledge and commitment to the sustainable development vision is growing and growing, all around the world.

During a recent moment of quiet reflection about all this, with a cup of warm tea in my hand, and the Spring sun pouring down on the greenery outside my house, I suddenly found myself with a question.

What is the world’s theory of change?

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that your client is the world — that is, human civilization on planet Earth. The world knows that its present course of development is not sustainable. It knows that not all of its parts are equally aware or enlightened: indeed some parts do not believe there is any problem, and some still engage in organized brutality and terrorize other parts. But there nonetheless exists a growing core of people who understand the world’s dilemma and who are trying to help the world to change course.

Where would you look to understand and analyze that world’s theory of change? Well, logically, you might start with the United Nations. The processes going on there, right now, suggest the following theory of change: We will work as nation states. We will set voluntary goals together. Then we will set up a number of voluntary processes to finance and resource that change, and to monitor progress. These processes will encourage each nation to change its policies, which will change behavior, so that we achieve sustainability. Losses of people and ecosystems along the way are probably inevitable but will be minimized.

But if you keep looking carefully, you quickly see that not everyone subscribes to that theory. The large business and financial organizations have another one: We will continue to grow our power as a parallel governance process that controls most of the resource and monetary flows. Without risking profits, we will engineer changes in investment, manufacturing and marketing so that sustainability eventually emerges, while those core monetary flows remain undisturbed. The technology advances and market dynamics will carry us past the risk of catastrophe. Losses of people and ecosystems along the way, maybe big ones, are inevitable; but the world will adapt, and that is an acceptable trade-off for increasing our overall material quality of life.

Civil society — meaning, everyone outside of government and business that is trying to make change — approaches its theory of change very differently. We will awaken the awareness and passion of the people. We will generate ideas, enthusiasm, and occasional large gatherings. Ideas and awareness will spread and enlighten the people, and they will do various things, in their various contexts, to implement small changes, all of which will add up to big change. Losses of people and ecosystems along the way are unacceptable and are to be avoided at all costs.

Probably we could construct a few more of these, from the perspective of more specialized sub-groupings of our world — all the people working with cities and communities, say, or in education. But the main point here is already apparent: the world does not have a clear, and certainly not a unified, theory of change. It has a few different theories that are rather vague, at least in terms of how they will lead to a sustainable world. Nor does the world have any serious method for testing its assumptions, and determining whether the various theories of change it is now pursuing are actually effective.

Of course, change is happening. I see this with my own eyes, every day. So, something is working. In each of the three domains quickly sketched above — government and the UN, global business, and civil society — one can point to evidence that these theories are producing results. The UN’s “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) are credited with accelerating progress on reducing poverty between 2000 and 2015, and it is hoped the SDGs will do the same from 2016 to 2030. Business has somehow self-evolved a range of mechanisms that are producing new, “greener” products and even efforts to create better quality of life for workers; and some companies appear to be profiting from that process. Civil society (let’s add science in there, too, because they have similar theories of change) can point to both of these and say that they were the source of the ideas that governments and businesses have started to implement.

And yet, from the perspective of a consultant thinking about a client, this world’s process of change still seems terribly haphazard. If the data are right — and they certainly seem to be, given the melting ice sheets, the disappearing species, the streams of refugees escaping war-torn areas where conflict is partly fueled by resource scarcity — the situation calls for much more than this. Splintered, haphazard change strategies are not enough. Or … could it be that they are enough? Or at least the best we can hope for?

In connection with a book that I have been working on — the third book in my “Optimist Trilogy”, which includes Believing Cassandra and The Sustainability Transformation — I will be using this blog to explore this question of the world’s “theory of change.” Words like “transformation” have now entered the global vocabulary, at a mainstream level (UN, World Economic Forum, etc.), to describe what is necessary to save us from climate change and ecosystem decline on the one hand, while continuing to develop our economies and end poverty and injustice on the other.

There are many of us now, probably millions, actively and even professionally working on this Big Problem (and opportunity) we call sustainability.

How do we think this enormous global change is going to happen?